Five Ways to Approach Revision

An article with the above title appeared in The Florida Writer, August edition; it was written by Mary Ann de Stefano who is the editor of the Writer.  She says in LinkedIn, “I am a word nerd with techie tendencies and a marketing bent, and I want you to believe in yourself and your writing.”  Through her website MAD about Words, she offers a number of services for writers.

Mary Ann de Stefano

What particularly interested me in her article is that I am on the verge of finishing my latest novel and I have a strong feeling that my work will benefit from a healthy does of editing (by me).

In the article Ms de Stefano says: “Literally revision means to ‘see again’.  But how do you see your writing from the detached perspective when you’ve been immersed in it?  Here are five ways you can approach revision with a fresh look at your manuscript.

1. Put it away.  Take the longest possible break between finishing your draft and revision.  Time away from your work will give you the intellectual, emotional and psychological distance you need to see it anew.  Unless your bound by a contest or contract deadline, let your book length work rest for six weeks or more.

2. Change the scenery.  If your habit is to write on a computer, print a hard copy of your manuscript for review.  Make the printout look different from the screen version by changing the font.  You might be surprised by how reading your work in Helvetica rather than Times New Roman changes not only how your eyes see the work, but how your mind sees it, too.  I know someone who had a bound book created from her manuscript on Lulu, which she said was cheaper than having it printed at one of the office supply stores.  She says looking at her work like a real book changed the way she read it.  She read quickly as she would a real book, and when she saw problem areas, she marked them quickly with a sticky note for later.  Then she went back through and reworked the areas that had caused her to stumble or pause on the first read.

3. Read it aloud.  Hearing your writing read aloud brings it out of your head and gives you a new opportunity to see it (hear it) with revitalized attention.  Read your manuscript aloud from beginning to end, even though a long work might take several days.  Resist the urge to stop and tinker with a sentence or a scene.  If you come across something that needs further work, mark it for further review and move on quickly.  You might try recording and playing back your reading or having a trusted friend or writing partner read the work to you.

4. Take a bird’s eye view.  Spread a chapter or two out on a long table- or on the floor –  so you can view each page individually.  Look at your pages from above.  See walls of unbroken text or dense paragraphs (all narrative?)  See pages with nothing but short loose paragraphs (all dialogue?)  See sections where all the paragraphs are virtually the same length?  Mark these sections for review, because they may indicate issues with balance between dialogue and narrative or problems with proportion, rhythm or pacing.

5. Do it again.  Retype your entire manuscript (or a problem chapter).  This tactile approach – going over your work word by word – is bound to spark new ideas.

Take the time to revise and revise again.  Resist the urge to seek unmitigated praise for a first draft or try to get others to ‘fix’ your work by sharing it with beta readers or sending it off to and editor.  Even the pros don’t get it ‘right’ the first time.”

My intention is to take all of Ms de Stefano’s advice (except no. 5) and I’ll add a sixth: work from a to do list.  As the writing has progressed, I’ve noticed some thematic issues, character development problems, and occasional bad writing habits that will need to be addressed.

Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

So You Want to Be a Freelance Editor

This is the title of an article in the Florida Writer (June 2017) by Mary Ann de Stefano, editor of The Florida Writer and the Monday Muse.  She is an independent editor with over thirty years experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers who are developing books, organises workshops and designs authors’ websites.

She says: “From time to time, a writer who has decided it would be cool to be a full time editor will offer to take me out to lunch in order to ‘pick my brain’ or ask me a ‘quick question’ about the business.  I turn down such requests as kindly as I can.

“If there’s one thing you have to learn quickly to survive as a freelancer, it’s the value of your time and knowledge.  It worries me to see some of the starry-eyed attitudes that abound about  freelancing, so I want to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

“First and foremost, get real about the money.  I’ve had conversations with people who think they’ll work 40 hours a week, bill at a rate of $25/hour, and make a good income.  After all, 40 hours x $25/hour x 52 weeks in the year = $52,000/year.  Yippee!

“The reality is you’re not actually going to work 52 weeks of the year, and you’re not going to work 40 hours of every week, either.  You’re going to take vacations, holidays and personal time, sick time, and mental health days off.  In addition, not all your working hours will be billable to clients.   Some time must be devoted to marketing your business and taking care of administrative tasks like billing, record keeping, correspondence, etc.  The fact is, only about a third of your work time will be spent producing billable work.  Promoting your services and dealing with administrivia will eat up two-thirds of your time.

“As an independent, you’ll be responsible for expenses that were previously covered by your employer on your ‘regular’ job: medical and disability insurance, retirement savings, office supplies, computer, continuing education, membership fees, etc.  And you’ll incur new business-related expenses for a website and accounting services.  Some support tasks you’ll want to do yourself to save money, but that means more admin time for you, which is not billable.  Spend time or spend money?  Your decision.  While some of your new expenses will be tax-deductible, you still need to have enough cash flow to support them.

She asks other questions: “Think about how you can distinguish your business from others and plan what you will do to reach the prospects you want to serve.  How will you stand out in this crowded field?  What kind of editing do you want to do?  Fiction, nonfiction, academic/scientific, business?  Developmental, content, substantive, copy-editing?

“Do some serious reflection and decide whether you have what it takes to be a full-time, solo entrepreneur.   Go ahead and make the leap – but look before you do.”

All this reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who was working in financial services in a well-paid job, but he was unhappy and consulting looked like just the thing – financially.  He had lots of contacts who would become clients.  But some of the same observations Ms de Stefano makes, above, applied to his case, as well.  He made the jump and while he may be happier in his work, it didn’t turn out as he expected, financially.

The First Scene

‘Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right’ is the title of an article in the February, 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  The main point of the article is: don’t tell too much too soon.  It is written by Paula Munier who is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Scott Literary Services.  She has experience as a journalist, editor, acquisition specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author and writing teacher. (!)

Paula Munier

She begins the article by mentioning that she moved from “sunny California” to the “Northeast, where winters can be brutal”, and she dreaded the prospect of beginning “a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store – which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start.  It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats”.  These allow her to “slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road.  This is a beautiful thing.

“You want to do the same thing with your story.  Every reader starts a cold story, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible.  You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.”

She says, “One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.  ‘Tell’ is the critical word here.  The writer is telling – rather than showing – us the story.  Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.”

Ms Munier then suggests an exercise to edit a beginning: mark up the text as follows:

  • mark the backstory text (what happened in the past) in blue
  • mark the description (of the setting, etc.) in pink
  • mark the inner monologue (the characters’ thoughts and feelings) in yellow

I don’t have coloured text on WordPress, but perhaps the reader would like to mark up the beginning several of my recent novels:

Seeking Father Khaliq:

“May I ask you, honoured Professor al-Busiri, if you will go to meet Princess Basheera?”

I looked up reluctantly from the student essay I was reading, and considered the bearing of the woman who had entered my office unannounced.  She was tall and slender, graceful; she was motionless, but there was a suggestion of incipient mobility.  She was dressed in a black naqib and a jilbab so that I could see only her dark eyes.  Her voice, however, had an optimistic lilt to it.  She must be about thirty, I thought.

Deliberately, I pushed the essay to one side.  “Who, may I ask, is Princess Basheera?”

“She is my employer, sir.”

“And what does this Princess Basheera want with me?”

“She has an assignment that only you can fulfil, Professor.”

This is very strange.  A young woman comes into my office at (I glanced at my watch) two thirty-six in the afternoon, and asks me to meet with a Princess Basheera (glad tidings), about whom I know nothing, to undertake an assignment, about which I also know nothing, but which, it is said, only I can undertake.

I closed my fountain pen, thinking for a moment.  “Can you give me a reason, madam, why I should say ‘yes’ to your request?  I have a full afternoon of work ahead of me, and I cannot afford the time to discuss university business.  That should be pursued through the office of administration.”
The woman nodded.  “I can assure you, Professor al-Busiri, this has nothing to do with university business.  Nor does Princess Basheera wish to sell you any product or service.  The assignment is related to your status as a renowned professor of philosophy.”

(Probably too much description and inner monologue)

Hidden Battlefields:

“There were two documents,” she confided, her eyes fixed on his across the table; “two documents that got him convicted.”

Robert nodded, urging her to continue.

She said, “Nobody testified against him, apparently.”

“What were the documents, Mary Jo?”

She sat back, and folded her arms across her chest.  She was wearing a pale blue cardigan with pearl buttons; only the top button was undone.  “Well . . .” she began and paused.

“I mean,” it was his turn to lean forward.  He looked around the busy Olive Tree restaurant that she had selected: it was near her work in Alexandria, Virginia.  No one seemed to be paying attention.  “Can you give me an unclassified version?”

“Well,” she said quietly, “one was a diagram of a centrifuge cascade.”

“A centrifuge cascade that’s used to make weapons-grade nuclear material?”

She nodded.

“How could that diagram get him convicted?”

“Because it had the actual levels of . . .”  She picked up her menu and seemed to be looking for the waitress.  To her menu, she confided: “. . . uranium enrichment on it.”

“Oh, I see, and the levels . . .”  He paused.  “. . . were much higher than anything the Iranians have announced.”

(Pretty good – no backstory, no inner monologue and very little description)

The Iranian Scorpion:

“So, I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?” Kate inquired with one eyebrow arched provocatively.

Robert was clearly enjoying this conversation. He leaned towards her, his hands clasped around the Gordon’s martini which rested on the hotel’s grey granite bar. “Yes, you do.” He watched her with a not-yet-predatory interest.

She, too, smiled, indicating her willingness to play the game. “In what way do I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?”

“Well . . .” he glanced briefly at the open button on her khaki shirt, then, he studied his martini. “Mary Jo is very good looking . . . and she has a rather nice figure . . . and she is a clever, out-going girl.”

“Girl?” Kate raised that eyebrow again, but this time it expressed scepticism. “If she’s your father’s girlfriend, wouldn’t the word ‘woman’ be more appropriate?”

“No. She’s my age.”

Kate sat back on her tall chair. “And how old would that be? – give or take a few years.”

“In my case it would be thirty-two; in Mary Jo’s, about thirty-four.”

Kate chuckled and took a sip of her white wine. “So the old man likes young skirt.”
He stirred the martini with his forefinger. “Yeah.” There was a note of resentfulness in his response.

(Again, pretty good: no backstory, no inner monologue, perhaps a little too much description.)

This strikes me as a pretty worthwhile exercise.

Joan Wickersham

There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine.  A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me.  Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel.  She writes a regular op-ed column for The  Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.

maeda_writers_g1

Joan Wickersham

Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.

Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years.  Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”

Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist.  Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether.  I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight.  It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction.  Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”

I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered.  I’ll look back over what  I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’  Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel.  That feeling generally leads to surgery.  When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.

Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”

Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story.  My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect.  A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle.  I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating.  I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative.  When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.

I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense.  The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control.  The setting is present day East Africa.

Designing a Cover

I probably wrote about this subject quite a while ago, but it’s close enough to my heart that it warrants a re-exploration.

My publisher will produce two cover designs, and the author can have his/her choice.  To facilitate the process, there is a questionnaire for the author to fill out.  It includes such questions as:

  • what is the book about?
  • what ideas do you have for the cover?

I usually respond with a fairly detailed cover idea.  In the case of my second novel, Sin & Contrition, I didn’t have an idea, and I probably told the cover designer that the cover should reflect sin and repentance.  What came back was amazing, and I liked it immediately:

413rtvescwl-_sx328_bo1204203200_

But with the five novels that have followed since, I have had to make more of a personal effort.

My latest novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is a modern allegory about one man’s search for spiritual fulfillment.  It is set almost entirely in the Middle East, and many of the issues involve Islam.  As the title implies a difficult search, I told the designer that I wanted a Middle Eastern maze with the Dome of the Rock (the famous mosque in Jerusalem) positioned at the end of the maze.  What came back was a modern, three-dimensional maze with the Dome of the Rock floating on the horizon.  It just didn’t work.  Next, I found two, antique two-dimensional mazes to choose from, and I suggested that the Dome of the Rock (in miniature) be positioned at the success point in the center.  This also didn’t work; I gave up on the maze.

While browsing dreamstimes.com’s collection of mosque photos, I came across a single photo of some people ascending a long flight of stairs toward the Dome of the Rock.  That’s it.  But meanwhile, my wife, who has a much better eye for things artistic than I, had objected to the font proposed by the designer for the cover: “It’s a dated Western font; there’s nothing Arabic about it!”  So, on a page offering ‘free Arabic fonts’, we found one we liked.

What came back from the designer was a lot better, but I asked that the photo be enlarged and positioned at the top of the cover, and that the white highlights be eliminated from the font.  We’ll see what comes back, and I expect to introduce the book and its cover to you when it goes to press within a month.

It is true that one can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover can play an important role in introducing the book to the reader!

J K Rowling’s Writing Tips

Recently, I accompanied my grandchildren on a trip to the Harry Potter exhibition at Warner Brothers Studios near Watford.  I have to confess that I am not a Harry Potter fan, but I certainly enjoyed the outing to the exhibition.  I found it astonishing the detail that goes into creating the real visual effects that appear on the screen.

Certainly J K Rowling is a brilliant author to have created the seven Harry Potter books which are so popular, worldwide.  Yesterday, I ran across her top five writing tips on the Now Novel blog.  I thought I would republish and comment on them.

download

J K Rowling

1.    Write in whatever time you have

One of J.K. Rowling’s most famous quotes is: “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.” This is crucial advice on writing a book. It’s easy for us to imagine successful writers spending all day penning beautiful paragraphs, but everybody had to start somewhere. For Rowling, that somewhere included full-time work and finding stolen pockets of time to write. Much as it might be a dream to take six months out to write your book, odds are you’re going to have to fit it into your everyday life.

I agree that it is unwise – even couterproductive – to establish an overall deadline (unless you publisher insists on it).  For me, the minimum size of a ‘stolen pocket’ is an hour.  In less than an hour, I can’t get into a fully creative mode.

2.    Planning is essential

Instead of diving right into line 1, J.K. Rowling advises taking the time to plan out the world your books will live in. She took five years to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned and worked out, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted (and the word Muggles, to begin with!) what the education was like, how magic helped in every day life and how the wizarding world of government worked. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she started writing the first.

Great if you can do it!  I write a two page outline of a novel before I start it, but for me, this is just a framework.  I find that characters want to behave differently and therefor events change, or I get an ‘inspiration’ that causes me to deviate from the original plan.  I depend a lot on these inspirations!

3.    Rewriting is just as essential

You would think after five years, J.K. Rowling would just be able to dive right in and write the whole of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, without much rewriting. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times, however. It’s easy to imagine published authors writing with the greatest of ease, but actually the process is just as difficult for them.

I agree!  I don’t think I’ve ever reached fifteen re-writes, but four of five is not uncommon.  For me, the scope of a rewrite tends to decrease over time: after a major rewrite, what follows tends to be less and less radical.

4.    Be aware of plot and pacing

Even when you’ve plotted out all seven of the books you want to write in a series, you can trip yourself up. In fact, that’s one of the big things to be aware of when you’ve done the necessary planning: even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies. After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.

I tend to make changes to the plot once I’ve started writing a novel.  These changes make the novel more interesting, more exciting, or better convey the overall message of the work.  But I agree that one has to be careful that the revised plot flows seamlessly with no inconsistencies.

5.    Write your passion

Perhaps a favourite J.K. Rowling quote is: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because you can tell she really loves the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re going to approach your book in a half-hearted manner, there’s no point even beginning it. Make sure you’re passionate about what you write and you’ll draw your readers along with you.

This is very true!  Occasionally, I find that the work is starting to lose interest for me.  Then I know that something is wrong and significant changes are required.  For example, I gave a literary friend a draft of Sable Shadow & The Presence before it was finished.  His comment: “It’s boring.”  I agreed, and I put it aside while I wrote Hidden Battlefields.  When I came back to the manuscript it was with new ideas and new enthusiasm.  When I finished, my friend (like many others) gave it a very good review.

Manuscript Editing

editor

Yesterday, I received the edited copy of my seventh novel back from the editor.  For me, the way it works is that I – as the author – am responsible for professional editing of my books.  The publisher will arrange for editing, but the author has to pay for it as a part of the co-operative publishing  deal.  On one occasion, I used the publisher’s editor, but never again.  It was a less expensive fee than my usual editor, but a lot more costly in my time and aggravation.  That editor didn’t understand that her job was just to check the grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax of the manuscript.  She did that (sloppily), and many of the changes she made were incorrect, and had to be reversed.  This made me wonder how competent she was at finding the real errors I made.  But what really irritated me was that she made changes to the text so that the meaning I had intended was lost.  Clearly, she didn’t like the characters or my plot.

Vonda works for a large editing company and she has edited the other six of my novels, including my latest, which is 108,000 words.  (That will work out to be about 250 pages, and her company’s fees were just under $1000.)

To give you a sense of what she wanted me to change:

  • too many commas
  • too many colons
  • English English to American English spellings (my publisher is American)
  • removing the hyphens from compound noun; for example hang-dog becomes hangdog
  • catching instances where two-letter words were wrong; for example: ‘in’ appeared in place of ‘it’ or ‘is’

The above changes were made after I had read through the manuscript at least three times and my wife had read it once!  Sometimes we see only what we think should be there!

And then there were her really useful comments:

  • there were two cases where I misspelt the name of the Egyptian president as ‘Al-Sisi’ when I had previously spelt it correctly as ‘el-Sisi’.
  • Similarly, in later paragraphs, I had misspelt the Anglicized version of an Arabic surname.
  • In one case she questioned the identity of the speaker (it could have been either of two characters).
  • And one case where she questioned my translation of an Arabic word.  (She was right.)

She made the following general comment: “This is somewhat of a departure from your previous works — more philosophical and thought-provoking.  The characters are, as usual, well-drawn, believable and sympathetic, and your descriptions of all the places Kareem visits made me feel as if I were right there with him.”

There is another step of editing: when the manuscript is laid out for printing, there are inevitably new errors – particularly in format – which creep in, and I will have to read it again carefully.

I haven’t told you much about this latest novel, because it hasn’t been formally copyrighted yet, but please ‘stay tuned’!